According to the SHRM 2011 Employee Job Satisfaction Survey Report to be released this month, employee job satisfaction in the U.S. reached its peak in 2009 — possibly because employees were especially grateful for their jobs at the height of the recession. But since then, it has been dropping slightly each year. A much-discussed March 2011 report from MetLife found that more than one out of three surveyed employees hoped to be working elsewhere within the next 12 months.
Though any «gratitude effect» — that feeling of relief at merely having a job, any job, during the worst recession in modern memory — was understandable, a slight decline in employee job satisfaction after years of economic stagnation is probably also to be expected. Over the past four years, many employees have weathered layoffs, ever-rising expectations of productivity and the need to do more with less, along with little to no wage growth even as other living costs are rising. A lack of progress in career movement has also frustrated employees — younger employees in particular — and it may be among the reasons older workers tend to report the highest levels of job satisfaction.
To a large extent, the overall trend toward a decline in satisfaction across industries is likely due to forces that individual employers may have difficulty controlling.
But this does not mean that organizations cannot positively influence their employees’ job satisfaction. Organizational leaders, not least HR professionals, have a huge influence on employee job satisfaction. Keeping a close eye on the trends that have the biggest influence on the factors employees say are critical to their job satisfaction is essential for business leaders and HR professionals. Likewise, looking for ways to proactively respond to these outside forces is increasingly necessary to maintaining employees’ satisfaction with life on the job.
Top Job Satisfaction Factors
What do employees today value most? Since the dawn of the recession and even after the recession officially ended, one thing has consistently topped the list: job security. For obvious reasons, the main thing employees want right now from their employer is the stability of a secure job and regular paycheck.
External Forces Influencing Satisfaction
It is not difficult to trace many of the top employee job satisfaction factors back to broader forces and trends, especially in the economy. Employees no doubt value job security — the number one factor — because of the continuing weakness of the labor market. The opportunity to use their skills and abilities (the second most important aspect) can also be viewed as a form of job security because it enables employees to both show their value to the organization and to develop the skills and competencies that make them more employable should they need to seek work elsewhere. Likewise, their organization’s financial stability and their relationship with their immediate supervisor (tying as the third most important aspect) both largely determine how likely employees will be able to hang on to their jobs. In an economy where long-term unemployment is now widespread, employees’ choices for top job satisfaction factors make a lot of sense. They reflect the desire, above all else, to avoid unemployment.
Along with high unemployment, another broad economic trend that may influence job satisfaction is overall wage growth. Economists have long debated the possible reasons the earnings of middle-income Americans have hardly moved since the mid 1970s. Now, new Census Bureau data released in October 2011 shows that from 2000 to 2010, middle-income Americans’ earnings actually fell. Over this 10-year period, income for middle-income Americans dropped by 7%.
HR professionals have a unique perspective on this trend because they experience first-hand the various pressures within the total compensation package that influence wage growth.
The biggest culprit is, of course, the rising cost of health care benefits. It would make sense that as health care benefits rise, they would put pressure on wage growth; fewer dollars are left over for wage increases when health care costs eat up more of the overall compensation pie. However, some economists argue against jumping to this conclusion and note that wages have stagnated most within the job groups where health care benefits are generally not offered. One possibility is that within some job categories, health care costs are indeed putting pressure on wages, whereas other forces such as globalization and automation are more at play within lower-paying job groups.
Along with the economy, broader social and demographic forces could also influence overall employee job satisfaction. The large Millennial generation is just beginning to enter the U.S. workforce in greater numbers. As a generation, it is much larger than the generation it follows, Generation X, and is even bigger than the Baby Boom generation. One theory is that a growing proportion of younger workers in the workforce could influence overall job satisfaction.
A closer look at the findings reveals that the Millennials are actually trending somewhat higher than Generation X in job satisfaction, and some recent surveys, such as the What’s Working survey from Mercer, show the youngest cohorts of workers among the most satisfied. In past years, younger workers were the least satisfied. The new data on the Millennials may indicate that this could change in the coming years.
Only tracking the results over time will confirm if this is, indeed, the case, or if the Millennials’ job satisfaction will eventually decline as more join the workforce. After all, unlike many of their peers, the Millennials that were surveyed had the good fortune of having secured a job and may consider themselves very lucky compared with many others of their generation who are still struggling to gain a foothold in the job market.
Many external forces that could have a considerable influence on overall employee job satisfaction seem to be at an inflection point — the global economy, the passing of the baton between generations, a rise in global social and political movements or even, in some cases, unrest and confrontation, and the unsustainable cost growth in areas such as health care and higher education. It is both daunting and impossible to try to respond to all of these issues from an employee relations standpoint, especially when change is so rapid.
Nevertheless, HR professionals are finding ways to make a difference in their organizations and to keep employee satisfaction levels high. These efforts focus on HR responding proactively in ways that actually are within the control of the organization, even if the causes of change originate in global trends and forces that are out of their hands. Some examples include HR’s efforts to keep health care costs down through the establishment of wellness programs, investing in training and recruiting efforts that help ensure that managers at all levels are effective and ethical, communicating regularly and transparently with employees, especially about the financial stability of the organization, and finding ways for employees to use and develop their skills and abilities through challenging assignments, training and mentoring programs.
These strategies are constantly evolving as new issues move to the fore. HR professionals are moving with them to find business solutions, add value and make their organizations a great place to work.